The Vicinity of the Sick

By  M.O. Walsh |  August 25, 2010

Carl walks before her, his pants black with sludge, and drops the stringer of goggle-eye he's caught that past hour, each of them slick and wriggling for life. He wobbles in his boots from the heat.

"You don't look so good," she tells him.

"I'm burning up," he says. "Maybe throw me one of them energy drinks."

Bess grabs a can from the small icebox they toted from the car that morning and walks up behind Carl, who's now staring out at the water. The goggle-eye sound like afflicted frogs on the bank and she's careful not to get too close. She's not sure if Carl's caught the eating kind and asks him as much.

"You can eat them, sure," he says. "Thick skin means clean meat."

Bess stands behind her man, pulls down his collar, and holds the cold drink to his neck. The veins look a strange kind of orange and this wrings her heart. Below his hairline, she sees that his Medistrip is flashing red alert. "Oh God," she says. "Carl. Did you get stuck?"

In lieu of reply, Carl stares blankly at the row of dead cypress trees that shoot through the bayou. Dark lines mark the trespass of recent floods on their trunks. Beards of moss sit tangled and immobile in the branches. Carl has visited this spot many times since his youth and the suck of water against the shore always gives him romantic thoughts, like what it would be like to dive into the bayou headfirst, as if this were Bess's family swimming pool in Baton Rouge. He could backstroke out to the trees and spew water from his mouth like a fountain. Maybe he could make this city girl laugh.

While thinking this, Carl's eyes roll back in his head. His joints seize up and he stiffens.

Bess begins to paw at his suit. "Carl, honey!" she says. "Talk to me!"

But Carl can no longer do this.

If he could he would confess to Bess that he felt something strike him in the thick of the water, but didn't look down. He didn't want to. Probably a passing stick, he'd hoped, a discarded satellite dish, nothing worth making her worry. But when Bess eases him onto the dark sands near Lake Verret, she can see where his muddy suit has been ripped, right above the knee cap.

Now that's irony, Carl would say if his mouth were still working, they make you buy a dang hazmat suit to wet a line and what good does it do you? I could have spent that money on you, he would say.

And since Bess is a smart girl from the city, the biggest in the South since New Orleans went under, she knows there is nothing more she can do. Help is already on the way, as evidenced by Carl's red alert and the sudden vibration of Bess's own Medistrip, warning her that she is now in the vicinity of the sick. So she simply unzips Carl's suit to expose his pale chest, the veins of it turning the color of mustard, and takes to bawling.

The cause of all this: At the top of Carl's knee is a hole, ripped clean through his rubber pants. Bess stares at the puckered wound in his flesh, a perfect circle, and knows this is not good. Carl is silent and dying and Bess suddenly finds it hard to believe that she's fallen for a redneck boy from the bayous, a fisher of dangerous waters, an idiot and a relic in some people's eyes, and she weeps again.

Carl hears these sounds and wants to tell Bess not to cry. Instead, he thinks about God and has questions like this:

Okay, so once there was there was a gulf that you made and then there was oil that you made. And then there was oil that you made in that gulf that you made for months and for years and then that oil that you made got thrown into lakes and bayous that you made by hurricane winds that you made. All natural, okay. All nature, I get it. But at the bottom of these sludgy channels that you made the swimming life that you made adapts like the walking life that you made. Miracles, yes, all miracles, I know. Yet among these are food sources that you made for the people that you made like the goggle-eye fish that you made that I caught. Yet why? Why are there also, I wonder, swimming beside these goggle-eye fish that you made, a new type of fish that you made to evolve in the oily water? Why the black catfish, now, hurting us with its big orange stinger?

Carl then uses his last living thought to wonder Why? Why does all that you made end up dead?

And things are dying on the banks of Louisiana these days.

Since the beaches and lakes were reopened, bodies have piled up; the Technoverse full of photos of circular holes in the legs of children who just wanted to wade, the bellies of dogs that chased after a ball thrown by a friend. And now, most recently, a young man who's just fallen in love. A fellow who's always enjoyed the old boat docks, the stories of his grandfather who was a shrimper, and the joy of pulling something up from the depths. A man who still loves his home state of Louisiana no matter how little sense that might make. A man who told Bess just that morning, "Come on, don't be afraid. Fishing's been around forever."

But Carl himself is no longer around. And since there exists no antidote to this brand-new calamity, Bess knows that Carl's body will be of interest to science and that this is the last she will see of him. So she sits beside her fading heart and studies the fish that he caught for her. She thinks they might have made it in life and love, had everything been different.